Long ago, or perhaps long from now, in a galaxy that may or may not be our own, an empire is at war with itself. The consequences of the losing participant fleeing to a powerful, mostly independent planet having its own civil strife on a smaller scale means that the civil war becomes the concern of the winner of the greater war, and a fateful meeting takes place.
Emery Robin’s The Stars Undying is explicitly a rewriting of the story of the fateful meeting of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, soon to be Queen Cleopatra VII, and the ultimate consequences for both in the times of the end of the Roman Republic – and incidentally, the final end of political independence for Egypt for the next nineteen centuries. In addition to the lines of this story, the major addition to the tale (besides it being transplanted) is the insertion of a version, a ghost, one might say, of a famous figure from history, of which I will tell more anon.
The story in The Stars Undying is told primarily from two points of view. First up, and I would say primary and clearly the star of our book, is Princess Altagracia. Princess Altagracia is our Cleopatra analogue here and when we meet her, she is on the outs of power, her sister having successfully taken the throne from her¹and established herself as ruler of the planet Szayet. It is when the aforementioned sister is in power that Quinha, fleeing the losing side of the Ceiao civil war, lands on the planet, with our second protagonist, our Julius Caesar analog, Matheus, in hot pursuit.
If you know the history of the period or have even seen the movie Cleopatra or watched the series Rome, you know what happens next, especially to the lady Quinha². Altagracia gets herself snuck back into the palace (yes, in a rug) and gets an audience with Mattheus. She persuades him to back her in the matter of the local civil war, and by the time she is installed on that throne, hearts and minds between Altagracia and Matheus are quite entangled. After an idyll on the planet (analogous to the cruise on the Nile) the two head back to the home planet of the Ceiao empire, where most of the action remains.
You probably know the story from here, too. Matheus has a date with destiny as an assassination victim. Robin does change the reason why Matheus gets assassinated, and I’ll go into that shortly, but the lines of the history rhyme very much with real ancient history. It’s not a perfect rhyme but it’s close enough that I could see the lines Robin was laying down as being taken from the actual history.
So, in reading The Stars Undying, there is a game I played in trying to pick out what characters, both onscreen and offscreen, were being mirrored in the book – beyond the principals, that is. And if you are moderately familiar with Roman history, you can definitely play along with this too. One major difference in this galactic version of the story of the ancient Mediterranean is a cultural one. This is a queernorm and gender equal world that Robin portrays here, having men and women equally in various roles. The Mark Antony analogue in this narrative is Captain Ana (or Anita), and she is as lusty, gambling, reckless and charismatic as her male model. Matheus while he is attracted to and beds Altagracia, is married in this narrative just like in our history, but it is the husband that keeps the home fires burning. Just so it is clear that Queernorm is across the board in this universe, while the aforementioned Captain Ana definitely beds men by the barracks, there are sparks and chemistry between her and Queen Altagracia as well.
I think that the queernorming of the Caesar and Cleopatra story, which does not alter the original as much as you might think, if you believe a certain episode of Caesar’s life (and it gets mentioned in this book, too, come to think) is one of the greatest strengths of the book and a reason to read it if you are not familiar with the history and want to soak it up in a fictional format. Robin as an author has taken the heart the idea that a retelling of the book can break free of original social norms that deprotagonize classes of people and provide a narrative that is far more inclusive, here of gender and sexual orientation.
But the greatest character I’ve not mentioned yet enters where the book goes into its deepest invention, the part and aspect of the book where Robin feels the most free to break from the history and speculate on her own accord. And that would be Alekso, the AI that Altagracia has been carrying around, an AI based on a person’s memories and thoughts, and perhaps (it is completely not clear and it is explored through the novel) their soul. You probably have already guessed who Alekso is if you know any ancient history but I will say the name. Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great.
It’s hardly a stretch, for someone who thought he was the son of a god and the reincarnation of Achilles, to have a space opera version of him transcend the mortal flesh and become an AI, (and be worshiped as a god in fact) and advisor to the line of Cleopatra. In the real world, Ptolemy (the dynasty that ended with Cleopatra) managed to get Alexander the Great’s body when he died, took it to Egypt and built a mausoleum and museum devoted to it that was a tourist attraction for quite some time. So Alekso the AI has opinions about Altagracia, what she does and how events unfold.
So let’s talk about why Matheus gets assassinated in this book, for the reasons in this book, as opposed to our own history. In our own history, it was the amalgamation of political power in one person that caused the conspiracy that assassinated Caesar on the fateful Ides of March. If Robin had kept that straight up as the reason Matheus gets assassinated here, that would have been a simple and straightforward situation. It might have been the simpler path and perhaps the best one.
Instead, in the world of The Stars Undying, Ceiao was not formerly ruled by kings in times past, which were overthrown in favor of the Republic. Instead, Ceiao was ruled by a theocratic government, priests of the cult of worship of Alekso as a matter of fact. The Ceiao of the modern era, the one that Matheus controls in fact if not in name as yet, is overtly and militantly anti-theistic, having firmly rejected this past. It was rather weird to have the Ceians continually talk about being anti-theistic throughout the book and that being the reason. While the Romans did not want monarchs (the analogue) for themselves, they dealt with a number of political systems in the Mediterraneans, from oligarchies to democracies to monarchies. So the militant nature of the Ceians in this matter felt really discordant.
I get why Robin made her Ceians so militantly anti-theistic: it sets up what Mattheus is ultimately convinced to try, and why he gets killed for it. But I think it is an ill fit for the Caesar and Cleopatra story. Ultimately, while the idea of an AI Alexander the Great advising Cleopatra and the whole idea getting tangled in the Roman Civil War seems like an intriguing idea, it didn’t quite come together for me.
Finally though, I want to make a comment about the terrain and the whole transferring this to a space opera. But I come at this softly. How many stars are there within 100 light years of Earth? The answer is about 1,300 star systems. And yes, lots of those are red dwarfs, but that’s still a lot of star systems. There are a lot of stars in the galaxy. There are a lot of star systems, a lot of terrain for a space opera to potentially cover.
Now, let’s look at this space opera setup, given this. This universe appears to compress various polities into a few star systems with lots of planets and moons in a given system (especially moons, Robin likes moons). The Rome analogue is a single star system, the Egypt analogue is a single star system. The Greece analogue, and the Gaul analogues are single star systems, too. And it is implied that the Persia analogue is as well. Lots of moons and planets in these systems, but they each don’t extend government over many systems nearby. Not zero, but there isn’t talk of controlling lots of systems.
All well and good. I’ve played much Traveller RPG in my time, you have the large empires (including the Imperium) and then on the margins, you have smaller polities like the Sword Worlds. So I was for a while imagining the space opera version in terms of that, that these polities were in a relatively limited region of space. But then, there is a mention of Ceiao and Szayet being 12,000 light years apart. Twelve thousand light years. The number of stars in that volume of space is staggering.³ And it’s not a typo, it’s mentioned several times, and also it’s mentioned getting cheese from twenty four thousand light years. These distances are mind boggling and make absolutely no sense and are given no context. We’re not given any indication that there are millions of inhabited stars between the ones mentioned in the books. And there is a mention of an “arm” where a bunch of worlds are located not visited in the book. It’s just a scale that makes absolutely no sense and it threw me out of the narrative every time distances were brought up.
So unfortunately, the combination of the goofy and not well thought out scale, and the social background mentioned in regards to Ceiao for me outweighed the positives of the narrative and I will not be reading further in the series. While the character of Altagracia is interesting and its an intriguing look at Cleopatra’s story, it was in the end not enough for me to like the book as much as I had hoped.
¹In the real history, it is her brother, Ptolemy (Ptolemy XIII) who wrested power from Cleopatra and ruled (mostly) alone. Atypically for Robin in this novel, she leaves out their third sibling (in the real histories, Arsinoe IV) altogether from the narrative.
2 She is our Pompey analog. As you may have guessed at this point, Robin does a fair amount of genderflipping in the book. Read on for more about that.
³The distance between Rome and Alexandria is 5% of the diameter of the Earth. The distance between Ceiao and Szayet is 12,000/105,000 light years, or about 11% percent of the diameter of the galaxy. But the way this book’s astrogeography works, it is as if Rome, Gaul, and Egypt are cities, with maybe a couple of outlying cities nearby, and vast tracts of uninhabited and unremarked terrain in between. It just doesn’t make any logical sense.